x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

American logic in the peace process makes little sense

I have real reservations about the extent to which some of the reported incentives the US appears to have offered Israel gives away the store and limits Palestinian flexibility and leverage.

As I have read press reports of the US offering large incentives to Israel in an effort to secure a three month settlement freeze, I've wanted to give the peace negotiators the benefit of the doubt. On too many levels, however, I'm having trouble understanding the logic behind the process.

First of all, I have a problem with the very idea that the US is negotiating with the Israelis on the terms of a settlement freeze. If settlement construction is "illegitimate", then what are we talking about?

There was some hope when the US president Barack Obama stated that settlement activity must end. This was then echoed and amplified by the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, making it clear that the president meant "all" construction. But when Israel dispatched its defence minister, Ehud Barak, to Washington to negotiate terms and the US, instead of sending him home, began a long and involved discussion with the Israelis, hope began to fade.

What ensued was a year and a half of mixed signals and meandering that continues until today. On the one hand, the US insists that settlement construction is wrong, but then argues that existing settlements are "accepted realities". The Israelis aren't fools. They know that if they build, there will be complaints. But they also know they can weather this storm, and when they do (as they have in the past), what they build they can keep. They've been at this game for more than 40 years and know that if they manoeuvre and buy time, they win.

I also don't understand the logic behind a three-month, one-time-only renewal of a freeze. Unless the administration has a trick up its sleeve and is supremely confident that it can work magic in 90 days, this freeze will end, and the Israelis will declare that their obligation has also ended.

The assumption here is that in the next three months, an agreement can be reached on borders, including what the Israelis call "Jerusalem" (which it must always be remembered, includes not just the Holy City, but their "land grab" of large areas of the West Bank to the north, east and south of the city).

The idea appears to be that the Israelis will accept borders that encapsulate the major settlements they have already built (something which the US appears to have accepted) with land around them allowing for "natural growth" and the Palestinians will then accept this as a fait accompli. Within these "accepted borders", construction will be allowed while negotiations on other issues continue. Since the same hardliners in the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government who do not accept a limited freeze are even more opposed to returning land to the Palestinians, and since the Palestinians most likely will not be able to easily accept the borders that Israel may offer, this entire approach, I fear, is less a trick up the sleeve and more a risky pipe dream.

It also makes no sense that the US is offering incentives, on a grand scale, to Israel for a mere three-months. The logic here is that this is the window when Mr Netanyahu needs to convince his government to accept the terms of a freeze. But Mr Netanyahu's government is itself the problem. He could, if he were truly committed to a negotiated peace agreement, form a different and broader coalition government with other parties. But it is his insistence on maintaining his hardline anti-peace coalition that has created the current impasse.

This is not how George HW Bush and James Baker dealt with Yitzhak Shamir in the early 1990s or how Bill Clinton dealt with Mr Netanyahu in 1998. In both of those cases, US pressure helped force a change in Israel. In this instance, however, we are rewarding Mr Netanyahu's intransigence and supporting his hardline coalition. By any measure, this establishes a dangerous precedent with troubling consequences down the road.

If the Israeli prime minister cannot get his coalition to agree to stop building "illegitimate" settlements without huge US incentives, how will he get them to agree (and how much more will it cost the US to get them to agree) to any reasonable withdrawal from occupied lands?

So is the logic here that Israel will go through this "agonising" internal debate (sweetened with incentives) to agree to stop doing what they should not have been doing all along, and then put the ball in the Palestinian court, forcing them to accept what they were never a party to in the first place?

And what about the Palestinians? What troubles me most in all of this is the degree to which the US has inserted itself in the negotiating process not on behalf of the Palestinians, but instead of the Palestinians. I have real reservations about the extent to which some of the recent statements made by American officials and some of the reported incentives the US appears to have offered Israel gives away the store and limits Palestinian flexibility and leverage.

By appearing to agree to Israel's demand that they keep settlement blocs and maintain a security presence in the Jordan Valley, the US risks weighing in on two critical final status issues in a manner that predetermines their outcome. And by agreeing to block any Palestinian effort to go to the United Nations as a "court of last resort", the US has further constrained Palestinian options.

Since it is my understanding that these matters have not been agreed to or even discussed with the Palestinians or other Arab leaders, one can only imagine their consternation and loss of confidence as they witness this unfolding affair.

What, then, is the logic?


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute and the author of Arab Voices: What they are saying to us and why it matters